Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.

Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 2: Three Key Decisions

It’s been a few weeks, but I haven’t forgotten my promise to continue the series I started about reading Andy Crouch’s Becoming Tech-Wise: Everyday Steps for Putting Techonology in Its Proper Place. Travel and other circumstances have largely kept me away from the computer lately. But if I’ve been choosing (or by necessity have had to choose) to neglect my digital life in favour of the analog — well, I suppose that’s exactly the point. So without further ado, let’s look at Crouch’s first major section, “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family.”

Choosing Character: “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family”

Before addressing how to regulate our technological involvement, we need to know why we should do so, especially in the context of the family. Which means asking a larger question: What is a family for? Crouch proposes that “Family is about the forming of persons” (52) by which he means not only for the bearing and begetting of children, but for realizing the potential of those children (and their parents!), enabling us to grow into our full humanity. Family, in his estimation, exists to help “form us into persons who have acquired wisdom and courage” (53). Wisdom, here, is not just head-knowledge or book learning,  but “the kind of understanding, specifically, that guides action. It’s knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is…” (53). Similarly, courage is far more than just being brave. Courage goes hand in hand with wisdom, because “we need not just to understand our place in the world and the faithful way to proceed — we also need the conviction and character to act” (56). A more old fashioned way of talking about courage is to call it virtue.

The family is the crucial place for this sort of growth to take place, because it is, for most of us, virtually the only context we have for life-long, intimate relationships where we are seen for exactly who we are — good, bad, and ugly — and loved unconditionally by those who are committed to us and to our flourishing. It is where we run into the “iron sharpening iron” of personal relationships, where those who love us see both our failures and our potential and work to call us from the depths of the former to the heights of the latter. Some deep and long-lasting friendships are like this; the Church is certainly supposed to be like this. But for most of us, the family is where this happened first and happens most.

If we accept Crouch’s premise that the family is the chief context in which we develop wisdom and courage/virtue, what does that mean for the way we choose to use (or not use) technology? First, that we recognise that technology makes our lives easier and perhaps more fun, but that it can also work against us as we seek to develop wisdom and virtue:

Let’s honestly compare ourselves, and the society we currently inhabit, with previous generations who did not benefit from modern technology’s easy everywhere. Without a doubt, compared to human beings just one century ago, we are more globally connected, better informed about many aspects of the world, in certain respects more productive, and — thanks to GPS and Google Maps — certainly less lost. But are we more patient, kind, forgiving, fearless, committed, creative than they were? And if we are, how much credit should technology receive? […]

In countless ways our lives are easier than our grandparents’. But in what really matters — for example, wisdom and courage — it seems very hard to argue that our lives are overall better. […] this is exactly what we would expect if the things that really matter in becoming a person have nothing to do with how easy our life is — and if they have a great deal to do with how we handle the difficulty that comes our way. (63-5)

In saying this Crouch is not arguing that we should throw out our computers, trade our  modern refrigerators in for ice boxes, and go back to washing laundry by hand. Technology “is good at serving human beings. It even — as in medical or communication technology — saves human lives” (66). These are good things. But in terms of forming us as human beings, Crouch writes that it is “at best a neutral factor” in this endeavour, and its constant presence means that often “In the most intimate setting of the household, here the deepest human work of our lives is meant to take place, technology distracts and displaces us far too often, undermining the real work of becoming persons of wisdom and courage” (66).  “Distracts” and “displaces” — those words definitely resonate with me. There are things I love about our technological world but I also know that the tech I use distracts me — distracts me horribly, some days — and on my worst days it displaces not only my attention but even my affection. But Crouch gives me the remedy:

We are going to have to commit to make every major decision, and many small decisions, on the basis of these questions: Will this help me become less foolish and more wise? Will this help me become less fearful and more courageous?

We will have to teach our children, from early on, that we are not here as parents to make their lives easier but to make them better. We will tell them — and show them — that nothing matters more to our family than creating a home where all of us can be known, loved, and called to grow. And then we’ll have to make hard choices — sometimes radical choices — to use technology in a very different way from people around us. (68-9)

Okay. But how?

Shaping Space: “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement”

Crouch opens this chapter with the statement that “The best way to choose character is to make it part of the furniture” (71). That means filling the center of your home (that is, the place where you most often gather, not necessarily the physical center!) with items and activities that reward personal engagement, imagination, growth, creativity, etc. — with things that draw us in toward each other the way gathering around the hearth would have in the age before central heating. That can mean candles instead of overhead lights at dinner;  real instruments instead of stereos; bookshelves and craft stations instead of TVs; cooking from scratch instead of microwaving; and the list goes on. That doesn’t mean never choosing to watch TV or microwave dinner — but rather, that as we fill the social/emotional center of our homes with activities that require active engagement (with the world, with each other), it becomes easier to substitute them for passive technological activities as a default choice. If you remember the last post in this series, we’re talking about setting up nudges that inch us away from our screens and toward each other.

Crouch lays out a challenge here:

So if you do only one thing in response to this book, I urge you to make it this: Find the room  where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you. Move the TV to a less central location — and ideally a less comfortable one. And begin filling the space that is left over with opportunities for creativity and skill, beauty and risk. […] This simple nudge, all by itself, is a powerful antidote to consumer culture… (79-80)

I really like the sound of this. We are, I must admit, somewhat hampered by the fact that we live in a small, two-bedroom apartment — there’s nowhere for the TV to go except the living room, for example, since we certainly aren’t going to move it into a bedroom! But there are small steps we can take in the mean time, like making sure that our toys, books, and board games are visible and accessible. And when we have a house of our own, one day, I would love to fill its center in the way that Crouch invites us to envision: that it would be a space and a home filled with beauty and creativity, warmth and light, order and wonder.

Structuring Time: “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together”

For me the most interesting part of this section was the distinction that Crouch draws between the two things we as humans were made to do (work and rest) and their more common, and far less healthy and satisfying, counterparts (toil and leisure). Work, he writes, “is the fruitful transformation of the world through human effort and skill, in ways that serve our shared human needs and give glory to God” (83). Toil, on the other hand, is “excessive, endless, fruitless labor — the kind that leaves us exhausted, with nothing valuable to show for our effort” (85). Don’t make the mistake of thinking “toil” is limited to menial jobs, either: toil happens in the sweat-shop environment of technology startups, in the white-collar world where you can never un-tether yourself from your company phone, and when the technology that lets us complete more work in less time doesn’t free us from that work but instead increases its demands upon us.

The distinction between work and toil is fairly straightforward, I think. What is more interesting as a new idea to me is Crouch’s distinction between rest and leisure:

If toil is fruitless labor, you could think of leisure as fruitless escape from labor. It’s a kind of rest that doesn’t really restore our souls, doesn’t restore our relationships with others or God. And crucially, it is the kind of rest that doesn’t give others the chance to rest. Leisure is purchased from other people who have to work to provide us our experiences of entertainment and rejuvenation.

A game of pickup football in the backyard can be real rest …But watching football on TV is leisure, and not just because we’re not burning many calories. It is leisure because we are watching others work, or indeed toil, for our enjoyment. It doesn’t really matter whether the workers are well paid, like professional football players, or paid minimally and indirectly, like college athletes. From the point of view of the Sabbath commandment, it’s still work. (87)

I have been accustomed to categorizing rest and leisure according to how restorative they feel for me. Reading books is restful to me, so is crocheting; they’re real rest. Pointlessly dicking around on the internet is leisure — it may be physically restful in that I’m usually sitting down to do it, but it doesn’t leave me feeling any better afterwards, and often makes me feel worse. But the idea of evaluating rest/leisure in terms of what it demands from others is intriguing. I mean, I’m still going to watch movies, and I reserve the right to order dinner in every once in a while. But the question of who, if anyone, has to work/toil for what I want to do is a helpful one in evaluating an activity’s potential rest, or lack thereof. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leisure… except when, as happens so often, we confuse it for the real thing.

What does this mean for the home? One thing is that we need to guard against the infiltration of toil into our home life: the work email that “needs” to be answered, the project that “needs” to be finished outside of regular hours. Not all of us have jobs where we can be truly off the clock — but I suspect that more of us do than think we do, if you follow me. And perhaps if more people were willing to stand up for their time off from work, some of those cultural expectations around always being reachable might start to change.

Another important aspect of limiting toil and leisure’s creep into our homes, so far as we are able, is being aware of how they can affect our views of one another:

One of the most damaging results [of when the home becomes a leisure zone], as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has pointed out, is that children never see their parents acting with wisdom and courage in the world of work. Even if if adults’ jobs still require skill and insight, even if those jobs are quite meaningful and rewarding, that work now [post-industrial revolution] takes place far from home. […] when the art of cooking is replaced by meals warmed up in a microwave — something a five-year-old can do as well as a fifty-five-year-old — then children no longer see their mothers or fathers doing something challenging, fruitful, admirable, or ultimately enjoyable. Instead, the family’s life together is reduced to mere consumption, purchasing the results of others’ work or toil. No wonder children at the “peak leisure-home” stage of the 1960s and 1970s stopped admiring their parents. They never saw their parents doing anything worth admiring. (90-1)

Ouch! Andy Crouch, tell us how you really feel. Now, we are fortunate in that I’m able to stay home with our kids, and so they see me work all day long — and my husband’s profession means that they see him work regularly too. But it’s the next part of this section that we’re not very good at: the principle of Sabbath-taking.

The Sabbath, Crouch writes, is “rooted in the loving and creative purposes that brought the world into being” — but it is also “of all the commandments… the most persistently and casually broken” (93). Yup, guilty as charged. But at least, he adds, “there is a silver lining in the way technology has clouded our lives with nonstop toil and leisure — it gives us an amazingly simple way to bring everything to a beautiful halt. We can turn our devices off” (94). It says something about our culture that most of us will read that — “we can turn our devices off” — as a radical suggestion. What if we miss an important email? What if we miss something going on in the world? What if, what if, what if?

Well — what if we didn’t? Or what if, if we do, it doesn’t matter? What if we put tech on hold so that we could live our lives, instead of the other way around? Will the world really end if nobody can call me for the next hour? Can it possibly matter if I don’t look at facebook today?  Crouch sets out a challenge for us: to unplug for one hour a day, for one day a week, and for one week a year. I don’t know if I’m ready to unplug for a whole week at a time. But there are steps to take before that — and as this article from Brave Parenting points out, it starts with dinner.  No phones at dinner; we can build from there. Again, this comes down to a deliberate embrace of freedom through discipline. “The beautiful, indeed amazing, thing about all disciplines,” Crouch writes, “is that they serve as both diagnosis and cure for what is missing in our lives. They both help us recognize the exact nature of our disease and, at the very same time, begin to heal us from our disease” (102). If I get jittery at the thought of turning off my computer and phone for a whole day — all the more reason to do it. Likewise with the idea of going offline for a week. But the disciplines aren’t an all-or-nothing affair; we can start small. We can start with dinner.

[Other posts in this series: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5]